Laos to boost fight in tiger poaching

February 6, 2008 5:07:20 AM PST

Helped by $250,000 from the British conservation group Panthera Foundation, the impoverished country has signed an agreement with the Wildlife Conservation Society that will fund the training of rangers and education of villagers to reduce the killing of tigers in the 1,545 square mile Nam Et-Phou Luey reserve in northern Laos.

"This is quite a landmark for Laos," said Arlyne Johnson, the WCS country program co-director. "I think it demonstrates political will on behalf of the Lao government to take tiger conservation seriously."

Laos' forestry and agriculture ministries signed the 18-month agreement earlier this month, under which about 70 local villagers will be employed in the park and a campaign will be developed to educate villagers about the benefits of protecting the wildlife.

"This will really be helpful in our conservation activities in Nam Et-Phou Luey," said Phonesane Vilaymang, deputy director of the Houaphan Provincial Department of Agriculture and Forestry Office, which includes the park. "On behalf of the provincial government, we will do our best to conserve the wildlife and create a boundary between the villages and the park."

Characterized by mixed evergreen and deciduous forests, the Nam Et-Phou Luey reserve is one of 20 protected areas in Laos. It is home to 20 tigers but Johnson estimates it could hold five times that number.

Like many reserves in the impoverished country, Nam Et-Phou Luey has had little money to stop hunters from brazenly killing tigers and their prey. Tiger meat is sold locally to restaurants, while their skin and bones are sent to China to supply the traditional medicine and souvenir markets.

It is a trend reflected in much of Asia, where tiger numbers have plummeted from 100,000 more than 150 years ago to about 5,000 today. From India to Indonesia, tigers are mostly under threat due to habitat loss and poaching.

Johnson said she is hopeful the new initiative will serve as a model for other countries struggling to crack down on tiger poaching.